Study Guide

All Sorts of Impossible Things

by John McGahern

All Sorts of Impossible Things Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As in much twentieth century Irish literature, paralysis is a major theme in “All Sorts of Impossible Things.” Cathleen O’Neill’s silent rejection of James Sharkey’s proposal was the defining moment of his life, and the hat he wears inside and out is a constant reminder of his permanent state of loneliness and isolation. His education is another factor that separates him to a degree from most others in the town and connects him all too briefly with Tom Lennon. Lennon’s death underscores Sharkey’s isolation and paralytic inability to change his situation (in contrast with Lennon’s widow and her baby, who move away after Lennon’s death). At the story’s conclusion, it is clear that for Sharkey, there are no alternatives to the lonely life he leads. Shedding his hat, finding a new love, even training the dog to race again—all of these reasonable endeavors are classified as impossible options for the paralyzed protagonist.

Although Sharkey’s attempt to find security in marriage is thwarted, two other marriages in the story suggest the range of possibilities that such an opportunity would have offered. The bartender Charlie’s relationship with his wife is far from ideal; Charlie sneaks drinks of whiskey in secret to avoid her disapproval and perhaps to escape from the emptiness of the relationship. Tom Lennon’s marriage, in contrast, seems ideal, at least to the lonely James Sharkey, who manifests bitterness and jealousy at the...

(The entire section is 430 words.)